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What Causes Brain Freeze? (Ice Cream Headaches)

Brain freeze is an uncomfortable sensation that feels like the inside of your head (or brain) has frozen after consuming a cold beverage or food such as ice cream. Some people also use the term “ice cream headache” as a synonymous term to describe brain freeze. This is due to the fact that most early reports of this phenomenon were observed among individuals eating cold ice cream.

The term “ice cream headache” was initially coined in 1937 by Rebecca Timbres in a book called “We didn’t ask Utopia: A Quaker family in Soviet Russia.” This phenomenon wasn’t referred to as “brain freeze” until 1991 in the New Hampshire Union Leader, a daily newspaper in the United States. There were other accounts of the term “brain freeze” prior to 1991, but these didn’t share the same meaning.

What is brain freeze?

Brain freeze is an intense cold sensation often felt in the forehead region as a result of consuming something cold. Scientifically it is referred to as “sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia” which translates to nerve pain of the sphenopalatine ganglion. The scientific name is somewhat misleading though because nerves responsible for pain sensations don’t function with this specific region.

When we consume something cold, as soon as the cool substance touches the roof of our mouth, a pain response is generated throughout the head. Upon hitting the roof of your mouth, the cool substance causes rapid dilation and swelling among blood vessels. The dilation occurs naturally as an attempt to increase blood to this particular region and warm it up.

However, when the dilation occurs, pain receptors become activated and produce what are called “prostaglandins.” These increase our pain sensitivity and produce inflammation. Furthermore, signals are sent to the trigeminal nerve, which signals this problem to the brain. Since the trigeminal nerve is responsible for conveying pain in the face, the brain interprets this signal as pain in the forehead area.

Ironically, the area in which you feel the pain (forehead) is different than the area causing the pain response (your palate). Usually the pain response or “brain freeze” lasts between 10 and 30 seconds upon consumption of something cold. It should also be noted that only 1/3 people experience brain freeze as a result of consuming something cold; not everyone can relate to this phenomenon.

What causes brain freeze? Contributing factors.

Among individuals that experience brain freeze, the contributing factors are pretty self-explanatory. The two most important factors include: substance temperature and the rate at which the substance was consumed.

1. Cold substance

In general, the cooler the substance that’s consumed, the greater the chance you have of experiencing brain freeze. Consuming something taken out of a freezer at 0 degrees Fahrenheit may not cause as bad of a freeze as if a the temperature were at -10 degrees Fahrenheit. The cooler the temperature of the substance to be consumed, the quicker and greater extent to which your blood vessels will swell in your palate – thus leading to the pain response.

2. Rapid consumption

The rate at which you consume a cold substance can affect the degree of which you experience brain freeze. Those who eat their ice cream quickly or down an iced drink as fast as possible are more likely to experience brain freeze. When you eat something quickly you are essentially piling on as much coldness onto the palate as possible, giving it no choice but to send an extended pain response to the brain.

  • Source: http://www.bmj.com/rapid-response/2011/10/29/cold-stimulation-palate

3. Warm ambient temperature

When you consume something really cold in a hot or warmer environment, there is a greater likelihood that you’ll experience brain freeze. This is because your entire body is functioning at a warmer temperature, and when the cold substance hits your palate, a greater adjustment takes place. If your body was at a cooler ambient temperature, less of an adjustment would take place. This is why certain researchers believe that brain freeze is significantly more common in warm climates.

  • Source: http://www.bmj.com/content/325/7378/1445.full
  • Source: http://www.bmj.com/rapid-response/2011/10/29/ice-cream-evoked-headaches

4. Individual physiology

It seems as though not every single person who consumes something cold experiences brain freeze. Only 1/3 people who consume something cold end up with it. Therefore individual physiological responses to cold substances can vary. One person may experience significant brain freeze after eating ice cream, while another person may wolf down a large amount in a short duration and not feel a thing.

  • Source: http://www.bmj.com/content/314/7091/1364

How To Stop Brain Freeze or Prevent It

For most people, brain freeze isn’t considered a very big deal – it lasts for a few seconds and tends to subside within a minute. However, if you want to prevent it from occurring there are a few tips you can keep in mind.  Most of the advice here is pretty self-explanatory, but could be beneficial if you were previously unsure about how to remedy the problem.

1. Eat / drink slowly

The rate at which you consume ice cream (or anything cold) affects the degree to which you’ll experience brain freeze. If you eat slowly without shoveling down mounts of ice cream, you are less likely to experience the sensation of brain freeze. Additionally even if you do experience brain freeze, it will likely be less intense if you consume your ice cream slowly as opposed to seeing how fast you can eat it.

2. Warm the substance

For example, if you just took your ice cream out of the freezer, let it thaw for a minute so it’s not quite as cold. The warmer temperature the ice cream is, the less chance you have of experiencing brain freeze. If your freezer is set to an extremely cold temperature, you could consider adjusting it so that all your food isn’t quite as frigid. If you like your ice cream really cold, you will probably want to ignore this suggestion.

3. Warm your palate

The palate (roof of your mouth) is reacting to the cold substance by constricting your blood vessels. In order to prevent this from occurring and to diminish the pain response, you can warm this area up. This can be done by licking the roof of your mouth with your tongue and/or consuming something warm to offset the cold. Usually it is only recommended to have something warm once you are finished with your ice cream or cold substance.

4. Move to Alaska

There is evidence that consuming a cold substance in a cold atmosphere is less likely to result in brain freeze than doing so in warmer climates. This is because when you are already in a cool atmosphere, your body has already braced itself for the cold temperatures. Consuming a cold food like ice cream would result as less of a physiological shock because your body is already braced for the cold.

This is why if you eat something cold, get brain freeze, let yourself warm up, and finish eating something cold, you could get brain freeze multiple times. If you eat something cold, and continue eating it, you will likely only get the initial brain freeze and your body will have adapted to the continuous cold palate temperature.

5. Avoid cold substances

The easiest way to prevent brain freeze is simply to avoid the substances that cause it. In other words, don’t eat ice cream or consume iced beverages. Let’s face it, most people love having ice cream and beverages as cold as possible on hot summer days. Avoiding them isn’t going to be an option for most people, but if you hate brain freeze, this could be something to consider.

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